Timely Movie Review: Elvis

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

The recent Baz Luhrmann Elvis biopic succeeds more than it fails.  First and foremost, Austin Butler is very good, and he will likely get a Best Actor Oscar nomination.  His only sin is not being Elvis, but nobody is or was.  He does an excellent job of emulating him.

By contrast, Tom Hanks (or Luhrmann) made some choices that end up leaving Hanks as perhaps the weakest part of the movie.  Believe it or not.  Tom Hanks is a fantastic actor, and, like most people who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I’m a huge fan.  But this felt like a bit of a misfire.  More on that in a moment.

There are some other minor criticisms.  In a movie about Elvis, you certainly don’t need to incorporate modern musical “takes” on his work.  But, of course, that’s Luhrmann.  Speaking of which, Luhrmann’s flashy, comic-book-esque visual style seems overused early on.

On the other hand, that style is used in part to summarize or abridge details, which makes sense.  In watching this film, I realized that this is the first time in a long while that I’ve watched a movie and thought, “This really could have been a good, big-budget streaming series rather than a film.”

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Timely Movie Review: Top Gun: Maverick

*SPOILERS (DANGER ZONE) AHEAD*

Imagine someone comes to you and says, “I just ate the best hot dog I’ve ever had.”

If you’re like me, your response would be something along the lines of “Where did you get it?  Because I’d like to go there myself as soon as possible and eat one of these delicious hot dogs.”

If you’re not like me, you might scoff and say, “Who cares?  It’s a hot dog.  I like cuisine, not crap.”

So it goes with Top Gun: Maverick.

I’m not going to craft a 2,000-word analysis for this film, because one isn’t necessary.

The movie kicks ass.

When I saw the original trailer for TG2, which happened something like three years ago, my first thought was “why do we need this?”

Like many other properties from the 80s and 90s, we were getting a seemingly unnecessary sequel or reboot.  My usual reaction after watching one of these projects—even ones that I wind up thinking are ok—is “fine, but we’d still have been better off without it.”  That’s certainly how I felt after watching Ghostbusters: Afterlife, for example, but the same can be said of the Star Wars sequels or the reboot of my favorite 1980s detective show whose existence I won’t even acknowledge by saying its name.

Once in a while, though, one of these projects not only works, but exceeds expectations and makes you grateful the creative forces behind it didn’t give up.  That was my reaction after watching the first season of Kobra Kai, for instance, which I found to be inspired.

Top Gun: Maverick is something else.

If you had told me on the day I saw that first trailer “picture the best version of what a sequel to this 30-plus-year-old movie could be,” Top Gun: Maverick still would have exceeded those expectations.

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Timely Movie Review: Men

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Alex Garland’s Men was well on its way to being one of the better horror films I’ve seen, but took a detour into a bizarrely graphic, possibly literary-esque symbolism in the final 20-30 minutes that abruptly shifted it into the “it’s a thinker, but I never need to see it again” category.

I could be wrong, but I also don’t think it’s necessarily as confusing as a lot of people seem to believe.

First, the good part: The first two-thirds or so of Men is a fantastic slow burn, up to and including a near-real-time tour of the English country house that the main character, Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), will be occupying for two weeks.  In the early portion of the film, the only harrowing portions are those that relate to flashbacks of the events around Harper’s abusive husband James’ (Paapa Essiedu) suicide—a trauma that weighs on Harper and will ultimately be the focal point of the film.

What the viewer realizes early on is that all of the men in this village look very similar.  Of course, they are, in fact, played by the same actor, Rory Kinnear.  There’s a frightening incident involving a naked stalker, but, surprisingly, it’s quickly resolved without much fanfare (by horror movie standards).  Nobody is injured and police quickly arrive and arrest the trespasser.

At the same time, odd happenings keep piling up, all of which involving Harper’s interaction with village folk who all clearly look like the same person (something she never mentions, which I believe is significant).  The story culminates with Harper being chased home and several of the men showing up in her yard—one at a time.  The film still maintains some ambiguity at this point, interjecting the possibility that a bird caused a broken window, for example.

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Timely Movie Review: The Northman

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

I see a lot of movies.  Only rarely do I feel the need to write a review about a film I’ve just seen in a theater.  And it usually isn’t the case that I write a review because I thought a movie was very good.  I thought Dune and The Batman were very good, for example, but I didn’t write a review about either one.

The last new film I reviewed was The Last Duel, and that was because I was so frustrated by how good the film could have been, had the filmmakers not made a few ill-fated storytelling choices.

I’m now moved to write about The Northman for the opposite reason.

The film is certainly well-made, acted, and directed—but probably not a film I’ll go out of my way to see again.  If I’m grading it, it might be a “B-minus” overall (for scale, I thought The Batman was at least a B-plus, and Lost City was probably around a C-minus or D-plus).  The Northman was a solid, worthwhile movie.

But what struck me was how unusual The Northman is.  This film does a lot of things that other movies do not, will not, or cannot do.  Director Robert Eggers made some strong choices that could have gotten him into trouble, figuratively and perhaps literally, but his skilled filmmaking deftly avoided those pitfalls.

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Untimely Movie Review – Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection: 2004-2010

At long last, after eight years, I’ve reached the home stretch of the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection.  The list below covers all but the very last film in the collection, which I decided to save for a final post.  This group continues the “wildly uneven” phase of the collection, with some very strong movies mixed in with some selections that probably made sense when they originally sold this set, but seem a little curious in hindsight.  Here we go.

Million-Dollar Baby (2004): I like Clint Eastwood a lot.  I like Morgan Freeman a lot.  They’re both great, as is Hillary Swank.  But what begins as a much-better-than-usual underdog sports movie turns into bummer Oscar-bait.  Granted, it worked like a charm, as Million Dollar Baby took home four major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Actress for Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Freeman.  All three of them were deserving.  But there’s a difference between tackling difficult subjects and emotional masochism, and I think this movie crosses that line.  Like, to the point where it comes off as a Simple Jack-type parody.  To cite one example: Maggie’s cartoon-character mother, wearing attire from a trip to Disney earlier that day, trying to get Maggie to sign over her fortune (by placing the pen in her mouth, since Maggie is paralyzed), but nonetheless stopping to remind Maggie “you lost!”  This is bad.  Bad.  Flat-out.  Over the top.  To say nothing of the fact that she wouldn’t have “lost” the match in real life.  And that’s before we get to the suicide attempt and, ultimately, the case for euthanasia.  That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have great performances (it does), but it’s absurd and eyroll-inducing.

The Departed (2006): There is so much to like about this movie.  It’s easy to write it off as just another Scorsese crime picture, but the distinctive hook of two entangled sides with opposing spies in their ranks makes for a riveting, tight film.  With a lot of movies like this one, even good versions, there’s a sense of inevitability about what will ultimately happen.  Heat (which is quite good) is a little like that.  This one keeps dropping pieces of the proverbial puzzle into place, taking some unexpected turns right through the final scene.  I’m not even bothered by Nicholson’s on-again / off-again accent.  Great movie, and a well-deserving Best Picture winner. Continue reading

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Untimely Movie Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Curiously, the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection includes all three Lord of the Rings films.  Despite the fact that there are several other films in the collection that come from multi-movie franchises, LOTR is the only such franchise that gets more than one entry.

Prior to re-watching them for this review, I had only seen these movies once, and not in a theater.  I wanted to see them due to their cultural significance, so I asked for and received the Extended Editions for Christmas 2004 or 2005.  I watched them once over the course of a four-day weekend, thought they were ok, but never felt the need to revisit them.

Now, nearly 20 years later, let’s see if the non-extended versions are perhaps more compelling. Continue reading

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Let’s All Make Fun of Tom’s Brackets (2022 Edition)

A funny thing happened during last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Breaking from my long-established record of futility, as prominently displayed in 2011, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, I somehow bounced back from the one-year COVID tournament layoff to . . . win my pools?  That can’t be right, can it?!?

Indeed, my 2021 bracket correctly predicted a national final of Baylor vs. Gonzaga, with the Bears winning.

And, for the first time since I was in high school(!!!), I won a pool.  A couple of them, in fact.  That ended a 25-year drought.

This time around, I’m fully expecting a return to (terrible) form.  However, I will say that my approach turned out to be the same: I picked very conservatively this year, with mostly top-three seeds advancing past the first two rounds.

While this very likely means I’ll be playing catch-up because I won’t nail many of those tasty first-round upsets, it also means that, as the powers advance, I’ll gradually pull back into contention—and then ahead, if all goes well.  Again, that’s unlikely, but I noticed after filling out this year’s bracket that the formula last year was in that same vein.

The only thing that’s a bummer is that my beloved Richmond Spiders got a terrible draw.

I couldn’t in good conscience pick them over Iowa, a red-hot team that won the Big 10 Tournament.  I was really hoping Richmond would get some fifth-place team from a power conference that struggled at the end of the year—the ideal prey for the tough-to-handle Spiders.

Given their unprecedented (due to COVID rules) experience and challenging style of play for most teams, I really thought Richmond might be primed for an upset or two.  But Iowa is both on a roll and matches up well against Richmond, with a typical dominating inside game and a dynamic scorer besides.

I really, really hope I’m wrong, though!  I would gladly take a bath on my pool if it meant a deep Richmond run.  No contest.  To hell with my bracket!

Speaking of, here it is.  The biggest dilemma, honestly, was Tennessee.  I just don’t trust Rick Barnes to take them to the Final Four.  If this bracket winds up otherwise decent, I think that will be the decision that is my ultimate undoing.  Of course, I could just tank like I normally do, in which case—I’ll look forward to my next win (in 2046):


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Untimely Movie Review: Harry Potter

Harry Potter sceneAs I move forward through the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection, the set affords me an opportunity to take a much-delayed detour into a vast cinematic universe.

After plowing through the 90s, I got to The Matrix, which inspired me to watch the whole series (for the first time!) so that I could see the fourth in a theater.  As it so happens, the film immediately following The Matrix in the collection is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone.

I knew it was coming, so, last year, when I saw a flash sale on the 4K UHD Harry Potter collection—none of which I had seen—for $50 on Amazon, I jumped at it.  And, over the course of just a few days, I experienced the eight-film series.

Rather than reviewing only the single film that occupies a slot in the collection, I’m providing quick takes on each movie from the perspective of a first-time viewer.  Here goes.

Sorcerer’s Stone: First, it’s idiotic they changed the title for American audiences, but that’s a tangent.  A few random thoughts about this one.  I think it probably helps a lot to be about ten years old when you see it.  Quidditch rules make no sense: if there’s one ball that’s worth 150 points and ends the game, what’s the point of the rest of it?  There sure were a lot of owls in this movie.  Harry’s foster family, the DURRRRRRRsleys, are beyond cartoonish, setting a trend of annoying minor characters in this franchise.  Overall, I guess it was fine, but, my goodness, there couldn’t be more parallels to Star Wars if they tried, up to and including the John Williams score.  At least Luke’s uncle wasn’t a nightmare—and had the decency to die with dignity.  The only thing this was missing was a Jar-Jar Binks.  I didn’t hate it. Continue reading

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(Mostly) Untimely Movie Review: The Matrix Series

Continuing my strong stretch run through the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection, I now get to tackle The Matrix.  However, with a fourth Matrix film recently in theaters, and, strangely enough, not having seen any of them, I decided to watch all four movies in about three days a few weeks ago.

I “get it” now.  I understand why The Matrix was such a phenomenon in 1999.  What is less clear to me is why the sequels are considered so weak by comparison, and, in particular, why the third film is rated so much “worse” than the other two in the trilogy.

First, the original.  The Wachowskis had three major assets working for them.  One, a simple-but-compelling concept, around which they could add layers of (occasionally excessive) complexity.  The premise is so terrific as to seem obvious in hindsight, as technology has advanced so much that watching the original film today makes it land a little closer to “science” than “fiction.”

I assure you that, in 1999, the notion of a fully virtual, ultra-realistic world was still visionary.

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Untimely Movie Review – Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection: 1989-1994

In accordance with the plan I laid out a few weeks back, I now resume my survey of the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection.  I’ve made good on my word to power through the rest of it, and, as of this writing, I only have two left to watch.  But, I still have to write about each of the films.  Thus, here is a rundown of the movies from the collection that cover 1989 through 1994:

Driving Miss Daisy (1989): Showing this film to the median 25-year-old in 2022 would be an interesting exercise.  This movie depicts what most of us in the 80s and 90s believed to be a positive, hopeful representation of race relations, but today would likely be mocked or sharply criticized as naïve or condescending or worse.  I’m not convinced that this shift is “progress.”  Still, contemporary critics and the Twitterati would almost certainly pillory Morgan Freeman’s Hoke as demeaning or servile—even though that’s sort-of the point!  In 1989, though, critics loved it, and the Academy honored it with a boatload of nominations, including Jessica Tandy becoming the oldest Best Actress winner, and Dan Aykroyd(!!!) getting a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  To date, it’s the last PG-rated movie to win Best Picture.  For me personally, it’s fine, if a bit paint-by-numbers.  It’s certainly better than some of the other films you’ll read about in a moment, although it’s probably one of the weaker Best Picture winners.  The only thing that I actively disliked about Driving Miss Daisy was that I found it implausible that a backwoods highway patrolman would instantly identify the rather uncommon surname “Werthan” as Jewish.

Goodfellas (1990):  Here’s where I drift in to heretical territory.  Goodfellas is undoubtedly a strong movie.  Let me say that at the outset.  Excellent performances abound, including the best of Ray Liotta’s career.  Here comes the “but.”  But, I think Casino is actually a better version of this type of film.  Goodfellas has some of the hallmark “Scorcese”-isms, including requiring a voiceover to drive the plot, and having some scenes that clearly include partial improvisation, but Casino handles both of these elements better.  Goodfellas gets credit for coming first, but Casino took much the same formula and smoothed out some of the rougher edges.  On the other hand, the rough edges are part of what so many people like about Goodfellas.  For me, it’s a good movie that’s plagued a bit by the eternal “book-based-on-a-movie” challenge, where time leaps and glossing-over are necessary to fit the story within a three-hour window.  But I don’t want it to sound like I don’t think Goodfellas is good.  I absolutely do.  I just wouldn’t put it in my top three of Scorcese’s movies—which is as much a testament to his work as it is to my opinion of Goodfellas. Continue reading

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